Mitchell’s Mideast tour fails to secure deal on settlements

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell left Israel on Friday after apparently having failed to secure a key deal on Jewish settlements to pave the way for the resumption of stalled peace talks.

The former senator had spent the day shuttling between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, after meeting both leaders earlier this week.

A second meeting with Netanyahu aimed at getting Israel to agree to a moratorium on settlements ended just hours before the start of the Jewish New Year at sunset, an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It appears the gaps between us and the Palestinians are still there,” the official said, declining to comment further.

Mitchell has been trying to wrest a compromise on the thorny issue that would have led to a three-way meeting among Netanyahu, Abbas and US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of next week’s UN General Assembly.

The Israeli official said Netanyahu was still willing to participate in a New York summit, but without the settlement deal that seemed unlikely.

“There will be no resumption of talks before the settlement building is stopped,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP after Mitchell left.

“Mitchell told us he did not reach an agreement with the Israelis on freezing settlements,” Erakat told reporters earlier after Mitchell held talks with Abbas in the occupied West Bank.

He had been aiming to get some kind of an Israeli moratorium that would be acceptable to the Palestinians and enable the resumption of peace talks that were suspended in late December.

Netanyahu has rebuffed US calls to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem, and Palestinians are sticking to their demand for such a halt before negotiations can resume.

Abbas told Mitchell “the issue of a settlement halt is not up for compromise,” Erakat said.

Mitchell, who was involved in brokering the 1998 Good Friday agreements that ended decades of strife in Northern Ireland, was due to continue his efforts to find the elusive compromise before the UN meeting.

“We hope that a comprehensive agreement on all issues can be found and senator Mitchell is deploying all his efforts toward that end,” Erakat said.

Mitchell has been in the region for nearly a week, urging all parties to “take responsibility” for peace amid US efforts to secure a comprehensive regional deal to resolve the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict.

On Monday, Netanyahu repeated he had no intention of implementing a complete settlement freeze, saying any halt would be temporary, would not extend to east Jerusalem and would exclude some 2,500 units already under construction.

Mitchell said at the start of his latest tour that the United States shared a “sense of urgency” for peace talks to resume before the end of September.

Standing in the way are Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land — home to half a million Israelis, viewed as illegal by the international community, and a key obstacle to reaching a peace deal.

Obama’s administration has been working towards a comprehensive peace package that would see Israel strike deals with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon, and Arab countries normalise relations with the Jewish state.

Israelis and Palestinians resumed negotiations in November 2007 after a nearly seven-year hiatus, but the talks made little visible progress and were suspended in late December after Israel launched its war in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

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